One week after Randy Orton dropped his bombshell to Bray Wyatt, SmackDown Live hit Ontario, California, last night (Feb. 21, 2017) to try to clear up the confusion. A battle royal was scheduled to crown a new number one contender, as well as a Fall’s Count Anywhere match between Nikki Bella and Natalya. For full results and the live blog from the exceptional Reverend Kain, click here.
Let’s get this out of the way: battle royals are almost always really bad.
This was not. In fact, it was actively great.
It also didn’t crown a new number one contender for the WWE Championship, held by Bray Wyatt. Next week, Luke Harper and AJ Styles will again fight for that honor.
Yes, the old double elimination spot didn’t come off too well here. It seemed rather obvious that Styles hit the floor first. Unfortunately, no referees had a proper view of the incident, nor were definitive replay angles available. Raw General Manager Mick Foley, attempting to rib The A Show, tweeted afterward that he and Stephanie would “have come to a different conclusion,” to which SmackDown General Manager Daniel Bryan gave a two-word answer on Talking Smack:
In a really old school touch, every participant (save for John Cena) got a pre-match promo or vignette. These ranged from quite enjoyable (a giddy Styles resorting to parkour backstage) to downright abysmal (whatever Dolph Ziggler’s was supposed to be).
What set this contest apart was how purposeful the entire layout was. Only two eliminations (Mojo Rawley being dumped by Baron Corbin, and Dean Ambrose being eliminated by Harper seem to have no future storyline ramifications), whereas all of the following programs were either advanced or kicked off:
- Ziggler eliminated Kalisto; Apollo Crews eliminated Ziggler; Corbin eliminated Crews while Ziggler threatened Kalisto with a chair on the outside (distracting Crews, and easily winning him the Dumbest Ass Award for climbing on top the rope with his back to the ring).
- The Miz eliminated by John Cena; later, Miz snuck back into the match and threw Cena out from behind. An even better wrinkle here is that Cena tossed Miz while The A Lister was mocking his brother-in-law with YES Kicks.
- Corbin eliminated himself when Ambrose pulled the rope down as The Lone Wolf charged the Intercontinental Champion; Corbin then pulled out Ambrose from under the ring and gave him an End of Days on the outside, which clearly affected Ambrose for the rest of the match.
- And, of course, the double elimination with Harper and Styles.
Wyatt laughed on the tron to close the show, with Randy Orton, as always these days, hovering over his shoulder. Next week’s main event promises to both be a great match and a big step forward in WWE’s best story.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the battle royal was how over with the crowd Harper was throughout—even when placed up against Styles, who gets superstar reactions against everyone. (The Ontario, CA crowd was awesome all night, to be honest.) It’s amazing what really strong, long-form storytelling can do for a character. We’re at a point where general consensus seems to be that Luke Harper not only will be in the “main event” of WrestleMania, but that the story requires him to be in the main event of WrestleMania.
SmackDown: Women Athletes
Daniel Bryan opened the show talking about “unexpected twists and turns” during WrestleMania season. And then he called Naomi out, causing the world’s collective heart to sink.
It was legitimately upsetting to watch the exchange between the pair—Bryan, who had to vacate two championships (and eventually his career) due to injury, and Naomi who had just “climbed to the top of the mountain” for the first time in her eight-year career, only to have it taken away immediately. Her promo engendered real, significant sympathy—which made it even more cruel when Alexa Bliss strolled to the ring as the former champion headed up the ramp, with Alexa widely, evilly smiling at the woman who took the title from her at Elimination Chamber.
Bliss demanded that since she never received her rematch, and Naomi was now out injured, that Bryan simply hand her back the title. Instead, he had a better idea—to put her in a match for the vacated championship with the other former SmackDown Women’s Champion, Becky Lynch.
Bliss and Lynch fought their best match yet, but eventually Bliss was able to distract the referee by pulling the ring apron into the squared circle. She then hit Lynch with a double handed throat punch before rolling her up, making sure to also grab the tights as well.
But it ain’t cheatin’ if you don’t get caught, and Alexa Bliss is now a two-time SmackDown Women’s Champion. After the match, Mickie James came out to briefly celebrate with Alexa before attempting to blindside Becky, but was run off by the Irishwoman.
There still remains the possibility that Naomi’s injury is storyline. Hopefully that’s the case, because an angle of Naomi returning “ahead of schedule” to reclaim the championship she never lost in her hometown is real enticing.
And once again, poor Becky has been flummoxed by a craftier opponent.
On Talking Smack, Lynch asked Daniel Bryan for another match, wondered why James kept coming after her even though Becky was called the “most irrelevant” in the “Women’s Revolution” and had some very choice words for Little Ms. Bliss:
“You’re another c-word ... you’re a cheater.”
Harsh language from The Lasskicker. But she needs to show, not just tell, that she’s wizened up the games of her foes.
In the other notable women’s feud on the show, Nikki Bella and Natalya tore the damn house down in a brutal Falls Count Anywhere match that was essentially every bit as good as the Raw classic from last Nov. 28 between Sasha Banks and Charlotte.
Words can’t really do this one justice. From the very start, it was violence, violence, violence, with Nikki hitting several big spears, kendo stick shots, an Alabama Slam onto the announce table, Natalya being shoved face first through a mirror (!!!)—and, oh yeah, Nikki once again (accidentally) clattering into Maryse. This was without doubt the best SmackDown Women’s Division match since the brand split, and with very good reason—it was an absolute blast, and certainly was a match with a lot of rewatch value.
Finally it seemed as if Nikki had the match won, with Natalya placed in the Fearless Lock on the ramp. But Maryse, who has had enough of Nikki running into her backstage, emerged with a pipe and hit Nikki with it several times before being dragged off by The Miz—allowing Natalya to record the pinfall.
Sorry for anyone not wanting the mixed tag match at Mania between Nikki Bella and John Cena vs. Maryse and The Miz, because it’s surely coming.
Also not sorry whatsoever, because it’ll be awesome.
The women’s division got what seemed like nearly half the total air time on this show. Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack made a point of it, as well, claiming that there’s zero chance Raw would ever devote a similar amount of time to its women’s division. (He was very much in fine form on the aftershow, also calling out AJ Styles for allegedly believing the Earth is flat.)
Raw might have bigger female “stars” than SmackDown Live, but the blue brand is absolutely using its respective talents far more, and far better. Raw may have more history making accolades, but it’d be very hard to argue that it has done more to normalize women as a major part of an weekly episodic wrestling show.
All the rest
American Alpha beat Breezango in a short match and then The Usos cut a highly entertaining promo on them from the crowd. (And they continued the banter on Talking Smack.)
This was fine, but compared to the rest of the show was utterly forgettable. That’s not even an insult, though: The rest of the show was that good.
There’s still a very long ways to WrestleMania, so there may be more teams added to the tag title mix. As of now, the only thing that’s really worked in the division since the split has been Heath Slater and Rhyno’s journey.
Not even a second thought for this week’s grade. Honestly, just go watch the show again and try to quibble.
If you want to remark that, well, the battle royal finish wasn’t absolutely perfect because they didn’t hit the ground simultaneously ... go ahead and do that. The rest of us will be over here enjoying this awesome professional wrestling program.
The way this show sets up and advances its programs on a weekly basis continues to be a true marvel.
WWE is in a real run of form right now, and the blue brand is a very big reason why.